The Millions

When the Beasts Spoke: Thoreau and the Sound of America

If I could teleport myself to any moment in American literary history, I would set my controls for the crisp fall day in November 1856 when Henry David Thoreau met Walt Whitman at Whitman’s family home a few blocks from the Brooklyn Naval Yard. The year before, Whitman had published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and sent a copy to Thoreau’s mentor, the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson responded with a glowing fan letter, saying, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Whitman, being Whitman, slapped the great man’s words on the spine of the second edition of his poems, simultaneously pissing off the Sage of Concord and pioneering the book blurb.

This was the context of Thoreau’s meeting with Whitman on November 10, 1856. As we learn in Laura Dassow Walls’s excellent new biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life, when Thoreau was in his early 20s, Emerson had anointed him as the next great American poet, showering Thoreau with praise and helping him get his poems published. Now 39, Thoreau had long ago given up poetry for essays, but he wanted to meet Emerson’s latest enthusiasm for himself.

Things got off to a rough start when Whitman

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